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Barbara Windsor: A true icon of British stage and screen

Barbara Windsor, known endearingly to fans as simply “Babs”, was a versatile and universally loved actor with an infectious giggle who delighted theatre, film and television audiences over the past seven decades. Starring in roles from Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be to Carry On and EastEnders, Windsor, who has died aged 83, had found her place in the nation’s heart as a true icon of British stage and screen.

Barbara-Ann Deeks was born in 1937 in Whitechapel, east London, to Rose and John Deeks, a market trader, whom the actor later described as “a happy-go-lucky cockney who had come back from the war in 1945 with a smile and a whistle but little ambition”.

Growing up in Shoreditch and Stoke Newington, she trained at the Aida Foster Theatre School in Golders Green and made her stage debut in pantomime, aged 13, at the Golders Green Hippodrome over Christmas 1950. Two years later she played an orphan in the popular West End musical Love From Judy, starring Johnny Brandon, at the Saville Theatre. Windsor said of her role as Sadie Kate: “My size had clinched it for me… the show could not use children under 15, although the orphans were supposed to be 10-year-olds.”

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With Sid James in ‘Carry On Henry’, 1971

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With Sid James in ‘Carry On Henry’, 1971

(AP)

She would go on to make her television debut with Brandon in Variety Parade in 1954, while still a teenager. Her first taste of the silver screen also came that year, playing a wild schoolgirl in the uproarious The Belles of St Trinian’s, based on the cartoons of Ronald Searle.

Spotting her during a performance at the Winston’s club, the producer Joan Littlewood offered Windsor the role which launched her career, in Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be (1959), a musical comedy about the East End of the Fifties, with songs by Lionel Bart. Windsor thrived in her role as Rosie in the production, which ran for more than two years at the Garrick Theatre.

Windsor rose to stardom in the Carry On films of the Sixties and Seventies. From her debut in Carry on Spying (1964) through to Carry on Dick (1974), she appeared in nine films in all. The heady cocktail of camp, slapstick and innuendo perfectly suited her saucy on-screen image, sparring playfully with a cast that included Sid James, Hattie Jacques and Kenneth Williams. Windsor recalled fondly: “To me, the Carry On humour is the celluloid equivalent of a McGill postcard: naughty but nice, with rude double entendres.”

Windsor had sought a role in EastEnders from its first broadcast in 1985 but was knocked back by the programme’s policy not to use well-known actors. When that policy was relaxed in 1994, Windsor joined the soap’s cast, taking on the gritty character of Peggy Mitchell, landlady and matriarch of the Queen Vic pub and mother of Phil and Grant, the two loveable rogues.

She was outspoken and loud, and EastEnders fans especially relished the scene when Peggy Mitchell threw a drink in Pat Butcher’s face, shouting: “Get out of my pub right now!” 

Letitia Dean, who plays Sharon Watts, said in tribute: “They broke the mould when they made Dame Barbara Windsor, there will never be another like that incredible woman, everyone who met her loved her.”

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As Peggy Mitchell alongside Mike Reid’s Frank Butcher in 1999

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As Peggy Mitchell alongside Mike Reid’s Frank Butcher in 1999

(PA)

To mark her 40 years in show business, This is Your Life host Michael Aspel ambushed Windsor at the end of a theatre performance. A shocked Windsor responded: “Michael, darling, you can’t do my life, it’s so naughty. Well, I just don’t know what to say… Me, speechless?”

She was made MBE in 2000. In her memoir, published the same year, she said: “In this extraordinary, topsy-turvy life of mine it seems incredible that I have reached this pinnacle in my career.” She was made a dame in 2016 and chose to retire from show business that year.

Two years later, Windsor made public her diagnosis of Alzheimer’s and became an ambassador for the Alzheimer’s Society. Delivering a petition on behalf of the charity to Boris Johnson at Downing Street last year, she told the prime minister simply: “Give me a kiss and better dementia care.”

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Windsor and her husband Scott Mitchell deliver a petition to Downing Street last year

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Windsor and her husband Scott Mitchell deliver a petition to Downing Street last year

(AFP/Getty)

Her husband, Scott Mitchell, said: “I will always be immensely proud of Barbara’s courage, dignity and generosity dealing with her own illness and still trying to help others by raising awareness, for as long as she could.”

She was married three times and is survived by her husband Scott Mitchell.

Barbara Windsor, actor, born 6 August 1937, died 10 December 2020